I’m standing alone in the middle of a large lawned expanse in the formal Victorian landscape of Peel Park, Salford. To the outside observer, it looks like I’m surrounded by empty space, absorbed in my phone and my headphones. Yet I’m enjoying my own private brass band concert, at the site of the park’s long-lost bandstand.
The physical bandstand, installed in the 1870s, was dismantled in the 1970s after falling into disrepair. In its place, I have stepped into the ornamental ironwork outline of an imagined bandstand. I’m guided by an augmented reality app, ‘The Storm Cone’ (2021), which was developed by the artist Laura Daly and features a commissioned score by the composer Lucy Pankhurst.
To a dramatic, cinematic soundtrack, spindly music stands slowly fill out the bandstand’s skeletal frame, as I hold my phone screen in front of me. Then disembodied brass band instruments appear, floating over the real-life backdrop of deep red and orange leaves. These instruments take it in turns to perform solo: a mournful horn, an eerie euphonium running up and down a scale in a fever before collapsing into a drone, a jaunty flugelhorn sounding almost like jazz improv. Each solo gradually drifts into a cacophony of collaged sounds, forming a series of audio snapshots. At various points, I hear snatches of familiar noises such as a car-horn, men humming, the shuffling locomotion of a steam train, the chimes of a clock, the sparse beats of a military drum, the rhythmic footsteps of a protest march, a solemn radio broadcast announcing the start of war, and whispered, fearful voices. Together, they paint a vivid picture of an historical epoch – the years between the end of the First World War in 1918 and the beginning of the Second World War in 1939.
The focus of Daly’s interest is the survival and decline of brass bands in the interwar period, from their roots in industrial workplaces and sponsorship by the military, to loss of industry and the resulting break-up of communities, which was mirrored by an attendant loss in bandsmen. Accompanying each sound piece are brief contextual notes, which place the changing fortunes of bands within wider processes of social, economic and political change and upheaval, from unemployment to migration and the rise of populism.
The experience of ‘The Storm Cone’ feels both private and communal. Listening through headphones imbues a sense of intimacy – but also of distance, isolating the listener from their immediate physical setting in the people and place that surrounds them. The power of the piece is not just in exploring historical memory, but the way it brings the listener back to the present moment. It foregrounds the part that green spaces and communal past-times can play in recovery from individual and collective trauma today, and asks us to pay attention to the forces that shape our sense of community and belonging.
The stories told through ‘The Storm Cone’ are not specific to Salford – the app. also enables the work to be experienced in Chalkwell Park in Southend, Essex – but they map comfortably onto the changing fortunes of the park, and the city that surrounds it. Opened on the banks of the River Irwell in 1846, and funded by public subscription, Peel Park was one of the first public parks in England. In common with green spaces and municipal amenities in other industrial towns and cities, the park fell on hard times in the latter decades of the twentieth century, as the area changed through deindustrialisation. From the late-1950s, the population of inner-city Salford decreased and people were dispersed en masse to other areas of the city, following processes of slum clearance which saw large residential areas demolished. For many years Peel Park felt under-visited and neglected, but it was refurbished in 2017 using a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. During my visit to ‘The Storm Cone’, Peel Park was the busiest I’d ever seen it. The area was alive with dog walkers, families, couples, joggers and cyclists crossing the park as part of a route that connects green spaces around the city.
‘The Storm Cone’ is one of a series of new commissions by artists based in, or with a strong connection to, Salford. Co-commissioned and co-curated by the University of Salford Art Collection, each artist responds to and celebrates green spaces such as these, and invites their rediscovery. They range from municipal public parks built as breathing spaces for inner-city areas, to local woods and nature reserves offering space to wander, to the huge RHS Bridgewater garden, which opened on the outskirts of the city in summer 2021. The resulting artworks are brought together in the exhibition You Belong Here, at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, alongside work from Salford’s publicly owned art collections and archival material from local history collections that documents the changing form and function of the city’s parks. Inside the gallery (whose solid redbrick mass loomed in the distance as I experienced Daly’s virtual bandstand outside), ‘Storm Cone Graphic Score (Complete Work)’ (2021) encapsulates the sound piece in watercolour. Pankhurst’s brass composition builds in volume before fading away as its players disperse; in Daly’s score, water and pigment bleed away from a central point, creating multiple routes across the surface of the paper. It is one of several artworks which show how artists have been inspired by the city’s green spaces over time. Among these are paintings and drawings of Peel Park’s ornamental flowerbeds, and promenading visitors, by Salford’s most famous son, L.S. Lowry, who studied adjacent to the park at Salford’s Royal Technical Institute (now absorbed into the University of Salford). One such work, ‘The Bandstand, Peel Park, Salford’ (1928), illustrates the mass popularity of leisure pursuits such as brass bands in the inter-war years. Huddled crowds encircle the brass players, who sit elevated above them, underneath an overcast northern sky. In a later painting, ‘Peel Park Bandstand’ (1970) by the artist, filmmaker and onetime Salford University lecturer Michael Goodger (who documented slum clearance in the dockside area of Ordsall through a series of poignant films in the late-1960s), the bandstand, by contrast, is empty and abandoned.
The new work commissioned for You Belong Here enters into a rich dialogue with these past stories and images, exploring the ways in which our experiences of green spaces today, and the ways in which we use them, have been influenced by those who went before us.
Jack Brown offers a literal take on this, retracing the desire lanes and traces visitors leave as they pass through a place. His video and sound work ‘Hidden Activity’ (2021) contrasts with several of the early twentieth-century photographs and drawings included in You Belong Here. These carefully composed images show people adopting formal attire and hats for a stroll around Salford’s parks. Here, the park is a place to see and be seen by others, and the route through the park is carefully mapped out and prescribed through the positioning of paths and flowerbeds. ‘Hidden Activity’, on the other hand, captures a walk that is more clandestine. Turned towards the wall, so all the viewer hears are the mysterious bumps and scrapes of a furtive fumble through undergrowth, the overall impression is of mundanity. Another work, ‘Green Space Floral Forms’ (2021) is an inventory of lost objects left in parks. During his research for the project, Brown collected found and discarded artefacts, which ranged from those that might be expected – twigs, keyrings, dog leads – to more obscure objects such as lightbulbs. Subsequently pressed into florists’ foam, the resulting reliefs prints form a residue of human activity and suggest a fleeting moment in an ongoing battle to keep public spaces clean. Displayed nearby are entries from superintendents’ report books, dating from 1908 and 1930, which indicate that public parks have long been regarded as spaces to be closely monitored, regulated and protected from behaviours and foreign objects which don’t belong there.
Three more video works by Brown, ‘Rope swing (motorway blue)’, ‘Rope swing (knotted dawn)’ and ‘Rope swing (smooth wood above path)’ (all 2021) further explore the tensions between official and unofficial uses of parks, exposing the gap between how the public is expected to behave in parks and the ways in which people actually use green spaces and make them their own. Displayed nearby is a nineteenth-century stereograph depicting the owners of nearby stately home Ordsall Hall. Stereographs were an early forerunner to motion pictures, using a device known as a stereoscope to create the illusion of a 3D image by enabling two analogue images to be viewed at once. Inspired by stereography, Brown’s trio of rope swings flicker gently in a perpetual state of suspense, as improvised play facilities waiting to be discovered and set in motion by their next users.
Salford native Lizzie King likewise draws our attention to humdrum elements of the park and the ways in which our perceptions of and interactions with green spaces change from different perspectives. ‘Rooted’ (2021) presents views of and from park benches as a set of postcards, which visitors are invited to pick up and return. Displayed alongside a collection she has amassed of historic postcards of Peel Park, King positions parks as places for days out and connection. ‘Belonging’ (2021) offers a different view. Through an elaborate process of editing, enlarging and combining 42 individual photographs into one image, the fuzzy outlines of the resulting C-Type print suggest the loose and uncanny light of night-time, when even places we know well are rendered strange and unfamiliar.
The drag performer Cheddar Gorgeous references another type of belonging: land ownership, an important influence on the development of public parks. Green spaces in many industrial towns and cities once constituted the grounds of large houses, which passed into municipal use when such estates were no longer manageable for their owners. Peel Park was formerly the grounds of the Lark Hill estate, and the building that now houses Salford Museum and Art Gallery was once a grand home. Gorgeous takes the story of a resident of one such hall, Catherine Mort – better known as Madam Mort – as the basis of their work, drawing on the history of Madam’s Wood, an area of woodland established by Mort in Little Hulton. In a series of striking portraits, ‘Untitled’ (2021), Gorgeous poses in a newly created frock and wig, which is also on show in the gallery. Combining artifice and nature, carefully coiffured grey hair is entwined with twigs, and leaves are printed onto an artfully crumpled dress along with snippets of conversation from locals who regularly use these woods. Returning to Madam’s Wood and the everyday suburban streets of Little Hulton wearing this modern and exaggerated take on period dress, the effect is incongruous and absurd, highlighting the reality that gardening, and the maintenance of green spaces, is a continual process of negotiation between wildness and cultivation.
Hilary Jack’s installation ‘Unsettled Ground’ (2021) further explores the changing uses of buildings and land to ask who (and what) belongs in the city. Underlying this is an implicit critique of gentrification and the continuing displacement of existing residents of cities, both animal and human. ‘Unsettled Ground’ is a collection of roomy bird boxes, which will be placed outside once the exhibition is over. These boxes are based on forms commonly found in Salford’s cityscape, from churches to mills, drawing attention to the adaptability of buildings and their occupants. Jack was previously based in the longstanding artists’ studio complex Rogue Studios, in a former textile mill in Manchester city centre (which was also home to nesting kestrels). When Rogue Studios was pushed out due to property redevelopment, Jack, alongside fellow artist Lucy Harvey, co-founded the studio group Paradise Works in another redundant mill, by the River Irwell in Salford. Other bird boxes resemble low-rise, new-build houses with pitched roofs, similar to those that can now be seen in developments of family-sized homes in the areas surrounding Peel Park and Paradise Works, and which are encouraging a return to inner-city living. As cities and their residents change, Jack’s installation considers the conditions humans and nature need to thrive and the amenities that are needed in the modern-day city.
You Belong Here suggests that access to both nature and culture should be prominent among them. Cities benefit from making space for grassroots, informal and ground-up initiatives alongside official facilities such as municipal parks and art galleries. What makes places interesting and exciting – and ultimately helps make them our own – is a willingness to embrace multiple forms of use, community and belonging.
You Belong Here: Artists Rediscovering Salford’s Green Spaces is at Salford Museum and Art Gallery until 19 June 2022; more information about the exhibition can be found here. The ‘Storm Cone’ app can be downloaded here, and experienced at Peel Park via a smartphone or tablet.
Natalie Bradbury is a writer and researcher based in Greater Manchester.
This review is supported by Salford Museum and Art Gallery.